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Press Freedom

Media Giant Advances on Taiwan

TAIPEI, Dec 2 2012 (IPS) - Taiwan civic reform, journalist and labour organisations have mobilised against the acquisition of the large Next Media (Taiwan) group by tycoons linked with China. They say this threatens Taiwan’s news freedom and even the survival of its democratic political system.

The Next Media Group owned by Hong Kong-based garment and media owner Jimmy Lai signed a contract in Macao Nov. 29 to sell four media operations of Next Media (Taiwan) for 600 million dollars to five investors, including Want Want China Times group president Tsai Shao-chung (son of controversial Want Want tycoon Tsai Eng-ming), Formosa Plastics Group chairman William Wong and Chinatrust Charity Foundation chairman Jeffrey Koo, Jr.

Taiwan media reported in mid-October that Next Media Group chairman Jimmy Lai planned to sell his Taiwan print and television outlets, namely the profitable Chinese-language Apple Daily, Sharp Daily, Next Weekly and the Next TV cable network to Koo, Wong and unnamed investors in the wake of losing substantial funds in his cable TV venture due to regulatory delays and difficulty in getting the channels onto operating systems.

However, concern over the proposed sale’s impact on Taiwan’s media pluralism, news freedom and democratic politics soared after a leading business biweekly, Wealth Magazine, reported in early November that Tsai may be behind the takeover.

Tsai, who is a major investor in Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Asia Television, purchased the China Times, the terrestrial China Television (CTV) and CTI-TV cable television network in November 2008 and later purchased the China Systems Network, Taiwan’s largest cable TV service distributor in a deal approved by the National Communications Commission Jul. 25 this year. This was despite bitter opposition by media reform and civic organisations and ‘full court press’ assaults on critics including journalists, scholars and opposition lawmakers by Tsai`s media outlets.

Taiwan Democracy Monitor president Karl Hsu Wei-chun told IPS that the takeover by Next Media (Taiwan) by the five conglomerate tycoons who have major business stakes in the People’s Republic of China “will have a grave structural impact on Taiwan’s democracy.

“Anyone who has eyes can see that this is the method through which China is buying control over Taiwan, just as in Hong Kong in the 1990s,” said TDW’s Hsu.

Concern over the expansion of Tsai’s media empire was already manifested on Sep. 1 when nearly 10,000 journalists, students and NGO activists led by the Association of Taiwan Journalists (ATJ) participated in a ‘March Against Media Monopoly’ in Taipei City.

The imminent takeover of the Next Media (Taiwan) outlets, especially Apple Daily and Next Magazine, has reignited anxiety over freedom of expression, given the performance of Apple Daily.

Founded in 2001 by Lai after the success of Apple Daily and Next Weekly in Hong Kong, Apple Daily, known for a sensationalist and muck-raking style, has become one of top two national newspapers in Taiwan, neck and neck with the ‘Taiwan-centric’ Liberty Times. Both now have far more readership than the former market-leading conservative United Daily News or the China Times.

In the wake of Lai’s decision, student groups, including a ‘Youth Alliance Against Media Monsters’ held an overnight sit-in at the Cabinet building Nov. 27 and clashed occasionally with police. Labour unions, which had quickly organised in the four main Next Media units, held a vigil outside Next Media headquarters on the evening of Nov. 27.

The KMT government of President Ma Ying-jeou has remained largely silent, with Premier Sean Chen stating on Nov. 28 that his government “will respect the judgment” of several independent regulatory commissions on fair trade, finance and communications.

During a public hearing at the Fair Trade Commission (FTC) Nov. 29, scholars, journalists, economists and consumer rights representatives unanimously urged the FTC to veto or at least suspend approval until the national legislature enacts robust legislation to regulate media monopolisation.

ATJ President Chen Siao-yi stressed that Taiwan’s four national newspapers retain decisive “agenda setting” influence as television and radio news media and internet media get their news almost entirely from the four national dailies.

“If these tycoons gain control over 50 percent of Taiwan’s media, we will never know how much news will be lost and not published and how much of what is published is false,” Chen warned.

“Tsai Eng-meng’s WWCT Group will become a vertically and horizontally integrated hegemon if the purchase of Next Media is approved,” National Taiwan University economics department chairwoman Cheng Hsiu-ling told the FTC hearing.

Cheng estimated that Tsai would gain control of over 50 percent of the national newspaper market, 30 percent of the cable TV market and 19 percent of the wireless TV market, and warned this combination “will result in the concentration of advertising and circulation, and force the other two national newspapers out of the market.”

“We will be left with only one giant upstream source of ‘news’,” the NTU economist told IPS.

FTC Commissioner Sun Li-chun has promised that his commission would proceed with its review in a “transparent” manner. (End)

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  • Miami observer

    This lays out Taiwan’s choices starkly. It is time for the country’s citizens to tell its government that they’ve had enough. Taiwan’s free press has been an important achievement of its democratization—as they article makes clear, it is eroding.